Exploring the Familiar

A great journey can happen, from start to finish, quite close to home. It can happen three blocks away. In fact, it can happen in one’s home, or one’s new home as the case may be. I am moving. It is not the first time I’ve lived alone, but it will be the first time I’ve done so in a space other than a shoebox-sized, cockroach-infested rooming house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That building is now being transformed from an SRO (single resident occupency) unfit for rats much less people, to either a boutique hotel or swanky new apartments. Such is my completely uninformed speculation. In sharp contrast, my new place is a real home with so much more to discover than the peeping tom who used to try to watch me shower. (Long story.) My new neighborhood is a precious little slice of Jersey City called Bergen Hill. It is a historic district on a hill, as the name suggests, and the view from my windows looks out from the summit north east toward downtown JC and Manhattan. Summit Avenue is the name of my new street. Perhaps it is the highest point in JC. I’m not sure, but on a clear day I will see Brooklyn. The heart of the “hill” is my new house. It is the oldest house in the hood, built in the 1860s by a man whose name and history I will have to write about at some other point as they escape me at the moment. Being a huge fan of old houses, and having lived in them most of my life, I am thrilled about this move. It took me approximately 30 seconds to decide that I wanted the place.

There is an enticing mystery about old houses. I like to imagine what life was like when they were built, what the challenges and the attitudes were of the people who lived there. But I don’t need an old house to get this excited about moving. Each time I move, I get a little hit of the travel rush. There are hole-in-the-wall spots that only the locals know about, hidden architectural gems around the corner and maybe even cobble stone streets waiting to be explored, to be trod upon. Yet this apartment is so close to where I live now that I am only changing my daily commute by a few streets, a few different buildings to drive past, a different main drag to stroll along. The wonder is in how much that does not diminish my excitement for my new territory. If I were a cat I would have untold number of creaky old basement windows to sneak into, trees to climb, and territorial boundaries to mark on moonlit nights as I wandered between houses in search of food. Exploration could go on indefinitely in this stunning neighborhood that I did not know existed only one month ago. The distance from my current home may not be far as the crow flies, but it is worlds away as my eager heart sees it.

I don’t want to imply that this is the perfect situation. There is no such thing and in fact part of what makes it interesting is its utter lack of perfection. There is no coffee shop on the corner and for the first time since the late ’90s I will not have laundry in my building, but I never really had a coffee shop on the corner, I prefer my french press anyway, and the upcoming laundry schlep is a small inconvenience well worth the price of my beautiful new digs. The house itself is in need of thorough exploration, but the neighborhood, the history and the tiny park across the street will be the primary targets of my wanderlust, at least for the first few months.

There is a more self-reflective piece to this story. This move represents a new phase in my life in more ways than one…physical, emotional, even intellectual. I am taking a semester off from school and exploring my own motivation, not just for academia, but for everything in my life. The travel analogy is useful here because when we travel, we notice things. Alain De Botton called this a “traveling mindset.” My expository writing students would surely appreciate that I am discussing this on my personal blog, but it is a useful and I think important thing to consider. When we travel to a place that is new to our senses, we are overwhelmed in many ways but we also notice details that locals take for granted. We notice colors and language and smells, the shapes of buildings, the way the streets curve or do not, and when we move to a new place, whether it is literal or figurative, we are stimulated in much the same way. The difference, the place where the analogy falls apart, is when we have been in that place for an extended period of time. Maybe it takes one month, maybe one year, but we reach a point where the newness fades and we may even forget all of those glorious details that at first drew us in and excited us. This is normal. We all do it, but maybe if we seek out a new route to work now and then, or get a drink at the bar on the corner that we always thought was too skeevy to go into, we can discover something extraordinary in our all-too-familiar surroundings. We can challenge ourselves in ways that enrich our lives. People who travel as a way of life often find that being in one place for too long makes them restless. Indeed, the more I have traveled over the years, the more quickly I find myself in this place. I crave newness, something to explore. And it turns out that there is always something new to explore, or something old, it is only a matter of looking, really looking, as if for the first time.


A Travel Poem

Meditation on Africa
Six trips to Africa
And what do I have to show?
Beaded earrings, necklaces
A bracelet or two
Desert stones, a seed husk from a tree I cannot identify
Memories and photos
Barack Obama kanga purchased on the roadside in Tanzania
A friend
A namesake
Six trips to Africa
Ghana, Ethiopia
Kenya and South Africa twice
And finally Botswana
Picking up bits of Twi, Amharic, Swahili
I never managed Zulu
There was not time for Setswana
Countless marriage proposals I could not understand
Six trips to Africa
And what have I learned?
Stigmas prevail
HIV, homosexuality
Heineken is preferred over Windhoek and Castle
Malaria is miserable and prophylaxes are ineffective
Ghana has the best food
Kenya the most breathtaking landscape
The best fossils…”Kenya dig it?”
Six trips to Africa
And I want even more to immerse my heart in the place
That has given me so much
A richly complex element to my morality, my mortality
My white skin paled against the landscape
Leaving its mark on me
Faint sunspots emerging after each foray to the equator
Exchanges of bananas for t-shirts and cheap cotton dresses
Echos of an idea I once had about doing…something
Six trips and Africa
Is my second home
Where I am not at home, but challenged
Geometric patches on my National Geographic map
It is a vast space even in miniature
Barely known to me, to its permanent residents
Six trips
I have just begun to explore
And truly sought far too little

Life changes

I have written “life changes” in the subject line of about 20 emails in the last week.  It is a statement and a description.  It is what happens, if we are lucky and brave enough to face it.  The end of a relationship, a change in career, a child, a marriage, a death, political upheaval, natural disasters…everything.  Change is the very essence of life.  Yet there is resistance.  Each step we take is met by a hesitation and perhaps even a half step back.

My relationship of seven years is now over.  I am not angry.  Some part of me is grateful for this opportunity.  I am in some pain, but that will pass.  What fills me now more than anything is fear.  I am groundless and struggling to regain my footing.  With each passing moment I fear that I will trip.  It is this fear that could prevent me from taking a big enough step forward.
During such periods, and even during times of relative stasis, there is a tendency to cling to familiar things, fearing some inevitable change.  I must have this kind of food and drive that kind of car.  I will take 2 ½ sugars in my coffee thank you very much, and not a grain more.  I only watch serious dramas on television and resent anyone who does not share my political opinion.  This is not me.  It is all of us.  We fear the unknown.
How do I…how do we…accept that life presents us with challenges, and that we are indeed strong enough to embrace them?
The other night I spoke with an old friend.  We had not talked in over seven years – the length of my relationship.  We had written emails here and there and of course connected, however imperfectly, over everyone’s favorite and most hated social networking site, but we had not talked.  Voice to voice.  Person to person.  Heart to heart.  When we did, it opened up something in the very base of my being.  It gave me courage.  We are two people who have moved through very different lives, reconnecting and bringing our strengths and our weaknesses to a moment of deep trust and sharing.  We did not talk about television or the latest political battles.  We talked about change.
The stimulation and excitement that can come from change is a large part of why I travel.  When I am away, whether it is Kenya, Paris or upstate New York, I find myself in a different state of mind than when I am home.  I am more open, more flexible, more capable of dealing with unexpected events, with change in general.  I can more easily let go of that tendency to have expectations at all.  I want that feeling in my daily life.  Curse the anxiety and the neurosis.  I want to be fearless.
When my students express their frustration with the uncertainties of science, with the ever-changing nature of discovery and falsifiability, I tell them, that’s part of the fun.  It’s true.  I believe that.  It is the beauty of how much we have yet to discover that makes science compelling.  It is why I have pursued it as an anthropologist, asking questions that are never truly answerable.  Yes, it is challenging.  Yes, it is often frustrating.  But there is always something new and wonderful to explore.  When we discover that thing, the one that throws our old ideas of how things work out of balance, we must adjust.  And we do, but it takes time.
Change happens.  From an objective point of view, facing change in our personal lives should not be more complicated than facing it in science or when traveling or when we fail to find our favorite food on the menu at a restaurant.  Yet we push and we pull and we struggle to maintain the status quo.  Our emotions reign supreme and we often take that half step back.  Perhaps I can only speak for myself, but I have a goal.  With each new day I will take a tiny step forward.  It might be 15 minutes of meditation, taking a yoga class or calling old friends.  The thing I do is less important than the significance it holds in terms of moving in a new direction.  Somehow I will find that fearlessness.  For those who know me personally, I hope that you will remind me of this if I start to step back.

Ghana Essay Now Published

Over the summer in between teaching, working on my degree and stressing about money, I wrote an essay about making connections in the so-called developing world. Specifically, this essay is about my friendship with a man I met in Ghana and how it has evolved. It was a challenge to write something so personal but very fulfilling and I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It has just been published at a travel network site called Bootsnall. Click HERE and enjoy. Pam

Sneaking a peek at Jozi

I did not see much of her, but Johannesburg (“Jozi”) is a huge city, peppered with steep hills, lovely gardens and a true urban feel. We stayed at a cozy B&B in a suburb called Melville. Melville is something like a mini East-West Village hybrid set against a hilly, African landscape with walled single-story homes lining the residential streets rather than multi-storied apartments. Good food, loungy as well as grungy bars, vintage clothing shops, tasty brunch and gay friendly attitudes abound. It is distinct from Durban’s more conservative vibe. Mixed race couples walk down the street past used bookstores and coffee shops. It felt very much like home.

Our B&B was the Ginnegaap Guesthouse. That is pronounced “hinneh-hahp” but the ‘h’ sound is made in the back of your throat. After being in the field, we felt extremely pampered. It was luxurious. There was chocolate on the pillows, cable tv, and a king sized bed. Breakfast was made to order and the omelette I ate that first morning was absolutely perfect.

We only had two full days in Jozi so we did not get to do much. We had two priorities apart from seeing friends and colleagues of mine: see some of the fossil cave sites in the Cradle of Humankind, and visit Soweto. We managed to do one of the two. A friend of mine picked us up our first morning and drove us out to the Cradle to see caves. We visited Sterkfontein first, probably the most touristy of the caves. They have a small exhibit before the tour. It seemed to have been recently done and elegantly so to boot. The exhibit prepped us for the tour providing the scientific backdrop to what we were about to see in the caves. Sterkfontein is an enormous cave system, considerably larger than I’d imagined over the years of reading about the place. It is no Mammoth Cave, but it is big. Our guide provided us with sound bites about the history of excavations in the cave and other odds and ends, but in truth the tour left a bit to be desired. The caves were fantastic, but we would have liked more stories and details about the science of the hominin fossils found there, who found them and when and so forth.

Before we exited the caves, my friend Chris met us near the exit and we snuck away, crawling out through an opening in the cave that was not, strictly speaking, open to the public. Apart from almost tearing my jeans on the fence that we had to scale, it was fun. She then took us to Swartkrans, just down the road from Sterkfontein. Swartkrans is smaller and more romantic than Sterkfontein. Maybe it was the stories Chris told us, the history that I already knew or the fact that it is not open for tourists and we were getting a private viewing, but Swartkrans had a magic to it that Sterkfontein seemed to lack.

For the last stop on our private tour, Chris took us to her site, Cooper’s Cave. It is quite different from the others in that it doesn’t feel much like a cave just yet. The excavations are going on at a level that is a bit more at the surface and there are not yet open caverns requiring ladders to enter. But Cooper’s was more exciting than the others because there are many fossils. One can hardly look at the site without spotting multiple fossil bones. I think I might want to go and work a season with her one of these days.

After our tours she took us to a lunch place where they specialize in pies. These aren’t pies like apple or pumpkin, nor are they even like shepard’s pie. They are more like hot pockets but considerably better. Most are meat pies. I had a chicken curry pie with salad and a ginger beer. A perfect end to the afternoon.

That evening we were on our own and went to a traditional sushi restaurant followed up by a local bar where we had an interesting conversation with the bartender/dj, whose name was Wellington. He told us what he thought about the political situation in South Africa and Zimbabwe. We’d been hoping to make some connections like that and we managed to get a little taste of it.

Our task for Sunday was to take a tour of Soweto, the famous township outside of Jozi. We’d arranged a tour with a company recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook, but somehow it never panned out. It was rather confusing, but it seems that the tour guide was being given directions to our location by a dispatcher and the directions were wrong. He never found us. Almost three hours later, we canceled and went to a nice little restaurant where they served hot-off-the-grill braai. A braai is a barbeque. Yes, I ate a lot of mammals on this trip, something I do not ordinarily do. One of those “when in Rome” things. The food was good, the waiter was kind, and the people at the neighboring table were entertaining. Plus, there was a cat. We ate our food, read the newspaper and soaked up the atmosphere.

Ciprian left the following morning to head back to Durban. I was in Jozi all day before my evening flight. I went to the University of the Witswatersrand (“Wits”), met with my advisor and enjoyed the Wits Origins Centre. The center is fairly new and has exhibits on early humans as well as on local people who produced remarkable cave paintings in the more recent past. The dim lighting of the museum provided it with a haunting air, and I was startled at one point when I turned a corner and saw an eland, stuffed of course, but real and in a dying position, with its head on the ground and turned to the side, with its rump still up and its forelegs collapsing underneath. It was graceful, but sad and somehow incredibly profound. The exhibit was focused on a group of people for whom the eland was a vital and even mythical animal.

I finished my Jozi experience with a surprise private viewing of some hominin fossils. It was quite a treat. I was then shuffled off to my B&B to get my luggage and catch the taxi that had been arranged for me. On my drive out of the city I saw parts of Central Johannesburg, much of which was very run down, even depressed. Other areas were buzzing with life. I am still struggling with my opinion of Jozi and of Durban and South Africa in general. Maybe I should live there for awhile in order to figure out what I think. Then again, maybe that’s not necessary. I only know that my feelings and thoughts are complex and often evade articulation. I cannot help but compare South Africa with other African countries that I know, and that may be a mistake. What I do know is that South Africa is beautiful, has good, hard-working people and certainly has the capacity to build itself into a great nation. But there are so many uncertainties and challenges, so many wrongs that must be righted, and so often a dearth of hope, that I sometimes fear for its future. I will go back at some point. Perhaps there will be something or someone new to inspire new hope.

Botswana has her claws in me

There was a moment the other day when I felt discouraged. I questioned whether this was the right place to come for my dissertation. I think it was really just a slip in confidence. Luckily, it was fleeting. That afternoon we (actually, Ciprian) succeeded in making the GPS data collection device communicate with one of the computers. We were then able to pinpoint some probable feeding sites for one of the male leopards. Once we acquired the data points we went out to find bones. We visited three out of four sites before the sun went down and found recent bones at one of them. The other two were not as productive, but that is bound to happen now and then and we were short on search time. In addition, some of the points were from over three weeks ago.

If I come back here in a year for my dissertation research, I could track at least one leopard, if not several, on a regular basis, increasing my chances of finding prey bones and possibly even finding a baboon carcass. However, I have come to the conclusion that even if I don’t find baboons, and I may not, it will be an interesting, worthwhile, and very productive actualistic study that would contribute to our understanding of leopard feeding behaviors and the marks they leave on bones. I really cannot ask for more. The tricky part will be figuring out what are leopard tooth marks and what comes from hyaenas and lions. Hyaenas in particular will snag the remains of leopard meals and crunch them to splintery bits. How do I know what is caused by leopard teeth? My potential solution to this, apart from following them like a hawk, is camera traps. With those two methods, hopefully I can do one or two things: see which parts the leopards are eating or steal carcasses away before hyaenas get a chance to make permanent alterations. It’s hard to know what is the best solution. Probably I will try a little of both and figure out which is best in practice. Because I must tell you, snatching a carcass is daunting. You may not know the leopard is standing guard nearby.

Baboons live near camp, and it is possible that I will at least find a scavenged carcass or two. They are chacma baboons, larger than all other baboon subspecies (or species, depending on who you ask). They come around camp and try to get into things, like any good primate. I watched them for awhile from the dining area but then one or two individuals would get a little too bold and I’d have to chase them away. A couple of times, Ciprian helped by banging pots and pans together and finally by chasing them with the gun. He didn’t shoot them of course.

Our last full day in Botswana we went back to the giraffe carcass that we’d found that first full day. It was pretty well consumed at least in terms of soft tissue. Three out of four limbs were gone. One hind limb had been completely severed in half at the midshaft of the femur. Think of your thigh bone being broken clean in two at the midpoint. Now try that with a giraffe femur. The only thing that can do that is a spotted hyaena. Impressive. The carcass had been broken into two major portions somewhere along the spine so that the hindquarters were dragged about seven meters from the forequarters. Probably this was the result of multiple individuals feeding at the same time. One hyaena says to the other, “hey man, I called it first” and proceeds to haul it to the nearest acacia bush just for good measure. I suspect the missing limbs were reduced to pieces somewhere within a kilometer radius or so. Finding the bones would probably be almost impossible.

The take home message here is that I think I can work in Botswana. In fact, I think that it will be a very good fit. It will not be cheap, but that is another story, one I will take up with various funding organizations.

Next stop…Johannesburg.

Okavango Research for Newbies

In truth, the research methods, complications and so forth could really be applied almost anywhere in Africa, but since I am in the Okavango Delta region, I will try to be specific to this area. First and foremost, being here is incredible. The animals are considerably more present and visible and seemingly fearless than in other places I’ve been, but I can’t really say that as a generalization and it may even be a bit of an illusion. It is just that certain individuals seem particularly comfortable with us humans around. This is true for a certain adult male elephant that frequents the camp as well as for some of the big cats. I knew that I would see leopards when I came here, but I never imagined that I would be fortunate enough to see so many individuals. We have seen four different leopards at this point, only one of which was skittish around the vehicle. The researcher here who is focused on leopards, Andrew, is trying to habituate this individual to the vehicle. It seems like a long, delicate process. We’ve also seen one male lion who did not seem concerned with out presence in the least. Most of these animals have radio collars, but two of the leopards do not so it was particularly striking that they tolerated us. They are quite distinct as individuals.

Before I jump ahead of myself, I am composing this offline while sitting on a small deck at the edge of Dog Camp, the BPCT’s field camp at the eastern edge of the delta. I am looking out onto a very dry, grassy flood plain with short bushes and a few trees scattered about. Our tent opens up onto this plain and in the morning I usually see at least one species of ungulate grazing in the distance. Most mornings we see impala, and sometimes there are zebra and tsessebe. Gray termite mounds are visible every 100-200 meters or so. There is not much in the way of topsoil, rather it is gray silty sand. The grass is very tall and dry and is the color of hay, but it is matted down in most places where it hasn’t been heavily grazed. Interspersed through the grass is sage brush, which is a pale green and is a fairly recent addition to the vegetation here. Apparently a river used to run through this area, hence the flood plain, but it stopped running 15-20 years ago and since then the sage has come in. There are acacia trees here but many other trees as well, and all sorts of plants that I cannot identify. In the background I hear at least three bird species chirping, calling, singing, and poking around in the brush. The birds are stunning and many of them hang around camp, especially the Burchell’s starlings and the yellow-billed hornbills. The hornbills are virtually pets, or pests, depending on your perspective. Other camp regulars include squirrels, vervet monkeys, and dwarf mongooses. From what I can tell, only the mongooses and hornbills are actively, though not regularly, fed. The rest of the critters snag crumbs when we aren’t looking. The squirrels get into the garbage through a hole at the top of the plastic container and scrounge around for lunch. I’d say they are the most resourceful. The vervets try but generally are too loud for their own good. As for that elephant I mentioned, well he comes and goes periodically. We’ve seen him twice. Once was at dusk right next to our tent. He stayed in camp all evening. Then we saw him the next day at lunch right next to the dining tent. Being only a few meters away from an adult elephant is both exciting and unnerving. You feel intensely how small and delicate we are as humans. But this elephant has been coming here for many years, probably before the camp was here, and is quite tolerant of humans. Not all of them are.

The other key aspect of this adventure has been driving. A vehicle is vital for any kind of movement around this area of the Okavango. Some areas of the delta require a mokoro (a kind of canoe) because there is so much water and little rivers, but here it is dry as a bone and we must drive a 4×4. My arrangement with BPCT includes the use of one of their Land Rovers. It’s an old Defender. They are sturdy vehicles, almost like tanks, and I’ve already done a fair amount of off-roading, but getting used to driving them is a challenge. It is fun in many ways. They are actually pretty easy to drive, but I am still getting a feel for just how much “bashing” I can do. When I’m driving through a wooded area and have to go over many logs, how big is too big? The only way to find out is to try, but I am also probably a bit too cautious since it’s not my vehicle. Maybe that’s a good thing. Every time I drive I get a little bit better at knowing what the vehicle (nicknamed “mamba”) can do.

And like doing research in any African country, things never go as planned and they take longer to do than they would elsewhere. In this case, mamba has been a handful. It’s a solid Land Rover, but it has problems. In other words, it breaks down a lot. So far it hasn’t done so while we’re out in the field. Thank goodness! But for example, this morning Ciprian and I were going to go check email at a place a few kilometers away and were thwarted when mamba decided not to start. We checked the things we knew how to check, but once that was exhausted we resigned ourselves to being in camp all morning. Andrew, the leopard guy, is also the person we go to when such things occur, but he left this morning for Maun and won’t be back until after lunch. So there you go. We stay here, we write, we read, we do other things and try to be productive. As far as being stuck goes, it’s rather a nice place to be.

I mentioned that we are in a very dry area, without any flooding, so we don’t have to worry about mud or water at this time of year, but the delta is flooded. In fact, it is flooded more than it has been in recent history. We drove northwest of Dog Camp yesterday afternoon with Andrew to try and track a collared lioness and made our way across the cutline road that is the border with Moremi National Park, what you might call the heart of the delta. Once we got a kilometer or two into Moremi, we started seeing water. This was the delta. We even saw a hippo from a distance, and lots of birds. I’d always heard that the birdlife in the Okavango was incredible, but seeing it is another story. We never managed to find the lioness, but we did stumble upon one of those uncollared leopards I mentioned above. He was standing on a tree branch, alert, and clearing interested in something off in the distance, something which we could not see. We drove closer to try and get photos, but still keeping a fair distance. He jumped down from the tree and made his way toward us, many 10 meters away, and walked casually by us in search of whatever it was he was after. We stayed with him, following as closely as we could for about 15 minutes and watched as he stalked some unseen thing. Then he stopped and walked slowly on into the setting sun. It was at that point that we had car troubles. It is one thing to have car trouble in the bush, and another to have it at sunset. We were about an hour’s drive from camp. Luckily, Andrew managed to get the car started after messing with the battery a bit. We got back after dark. I took a hot shower and we all sat down to a dinner of pasta with meatballs and a bit of wine.

The reason for being here of course is to find bones. I’ve seen very few so far, but the few that I have seen have been pretty satisfying. Unfortunately, none of them have been primate bones. It’s slightly disheartening, but then that is why I am here, so see what there is lying about out there, and if there are no primates then I either have to re-think my dissertation project or choose a different location. Not an easy choice. Tracking the carnivores is a part of the bone search since we want to know where they’ve been, and particularly where they’ve fed but that has not worked out exactly. There is a cord that is required to download the GPS information from the handheld data receiver to a computer. That cord is missing. So, one of the primary goals of this pilot study is probably not going to be accomplished. Obviously this stinks, but it’s not the end of the world. I have managed, really by chance, to see a leopard feeding, which was quite exciting. A collared male, in fact the only leopard with a GPS collar (as opposed to a strictly radio collar), fed on the neck flesh of a giraffe carcass that we found a few days ago. We took photos and even managed to get some of it on video. Many carnivores have been feeding on that carcass for the past few days. The individual was a young female giraffe and appeared to have died of sickness or something. We saw the carcass when it was untouched apart for some access through the anus which was probably the handiwork of vultures. In other words, there was no sign of predation. I’m hoping to see the carcass at least once more before we leave to see what kind of condition it’s in.

Today we may not get much done because of the vehicle situation, but that’s okay because we have more full days here than I’d originally planned. Camp is only a two hour drive from Maun, so there was no need for us to stay in Maun at all, something that I’d thought we’d have to do. We fly out of Maun on the 27th. Today is the 24th. We have gotten four full days here so far and should get two more. I think we’re doing okay.

I doubt I will write again from Botswana. The next entry will probably be from Johannesburg. I have no idea where we are staying in Jo’burg, but I’m trying to work it out. This is challenging with only intermittent cell and email use, but we’ll manage. In the meantime Ciprian and I are both enjoying being here. Yes, the flies buzzing around my head are a nuisance, but then I smell the air, look out onto the plain and hear the birds and life is good.